It was way back in 2002’s “Don’t Let Me Get Me” that Pink delivered the lyric, “Tired of being compared / to damn Britney Spears,” complaining about the conformity expected of her while emerging into a then-crowded field of girl-pop stars. Over three subsequent records filled with aggression and raw personal history, she’s more than backed up that statement of purpose with stubbornly non-conformist action, and so it is with apologies that we must compare these ladies one more time.
Of the two blonde-under-the-big-top tours currently motoring down the highways and byways of this fine land — Britney’s Circus and Pink’s Funhouse — there is no question that Pink’s show, as seen this past Friday night at the Staples Center in L.A., is the better investment for your entertainment dollar. This is for one simple reason: She sings. It is a primal, throat-baring, no-holds-barred sound, and despite all the spectacle, it’s her voice that actually fills the arena. Whether picking a fight in “U + Ur Hand” or searching for answers in “I Don’t Believe You,” Pink uses her instrument to its fullest extent, live and untracked, every night. This doesn’t necessarily seem all that revolutionary until you consider the competition — or hear Pink sing while suspended upside down, 30 feet above the arena floor.
There’s also a slight difference of intent between Spears and Pink, as underscored by each show’s opening moments: Britney descends from the ceiling, but Pink explodes up from a pit in the floor, spinning in a flowing skirt of flaming red taffeta and belting out “Bad Influence.” This dazzling entrance comes after a cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” sung in voiceover atop a short film in which she burns a house down, ensuring that her current caricature — a tattooed, muscle-bound she-devil here to get the party started — is abundantly clear. The other thing that’s clear is that the former Alecia Moore has no interest, really, in being anyone but herself. And, you know, eff you if you don’t like it. “I wanna be a professional lipsyncher,” she said at one point. “I could do like nine shows a week.” Still mouthy, after all these years.
The Funhouse tour is an exercise in sensory overload, but Friday’s show was interspersed with moments that were surprisingly honest and straightforward, given their surroundings. Part of that is Pink’s personality — her self-censor doesn’t seem to switch on often (the first words out of her mouth were “Holy s—!”), and even when dressed in a series of increasingly skimpy, painted-on outfits, she still carries herself like a detention-bound teenager. The stage takes its carnival design literally, incorporating slides, “tilted” platforms for the drum kit and keyboards, and a ramp that extends into the crowd just far enough for a dancer styled as a sideshow muscle-man to do a series of flip-flops. The ramp also made a good spot for Pink to lie down and stretch her fingers out to her fans during “Just Like a Pill,” as well as sit still for a gorgeous acoustic performance of “Dear Mr. President,” a song whose Bush-era politics are dated enough that the last line has now been changed to “It’s too late to take a walk with me, thank god.” (“I’ve played that song all over the world, and the only place I ever got booed was Anaheim,” she reported.) A quiet, piano-and-violin rendition of “Family Portrait” was full of childhood regret; during “Please Don’t Leave Me,” she petted her shaggy guitarist’s mane with such affectionate vigor that she actually pulled out a clump of his hair. After receiving a stuffed kangaroo from one of the many Australian fans in the crowd — she just played close to 60 sold-out dates Down Under — she joked, “I can get the Aussies to come to L.A…. I can’t even get my best friend to come from Silver Lake.”
Pink was, sadly, working wounded: She separated her shoulder four days before the L.A. show, a disaster for anyone whose current tour requires hard-core trapeze and rope work. “It sucks,” she admitted, “but I waited my whole life for tonight, so f— it.” Then she added, “The louder you are, the less pain I feel.” The crowd — including one Mr. Adam Lambert — sent her a verbal shot of morphine, and she pressed on. An understudy subbed in on the intricate aerial partner dance to “Sober” we saw on the VMAs; Pink sat on stage, wrapped in a big black cape, watching the action. Something about this scenario made the song’s lyrics hit home hard, turning “Sober” into one of the night’s highlights for entirely different reasons than originally intended, and seeing her curled into a ball, wailing her cords out while acrobats performed incredible feats of strength and trust over her head provoked a gut-level emotional response that the thematically-challenged and rather overwrought pas de deux preceding the number had not.
It’s possible that not every choice she’s made on this tour is good — could have done without the panty-clad pillow fight inexplicably accompanying “So What,” for example — and several of the more curious decisions involve covers. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” arranged faithfully and punctuated by the sudden inflation of giant car dealership-style evil clown and jester balloons, was gratuitous karaoke. Becoming approximately the 894th person to cover Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” just seemed lazy. But her pure blues rip through Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” was excellent, and by slowing the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” down to a steamy crawl — and performing it while writhing on a chaise lounge poked full of holes through which her dancers stuck their hands and groped the boss so graphically it would have made Madonna blush — she rendered it wonderfully unrecognizeable.
The show closed with the last track off 2009’s Funhouse, “Glitter in the Air,” a lonely, sad piano ballad that provided one final acrobatic stunt. This time, Pink didn’t let her shoulder injury get in the way: Clad in little more than strategically-placed white ribbons, she climbed into a swath of pink fabric and ascended to the ceiling below a quartet of dancers twisted up in red; there, they hung and twirled and posed like a human mobile, before dropping Pink back into the pit in the floor, now filled with water. The symbolism of the dunk tank wasn’t entirely clear — we’ve doused the devil fire within? she gets sweaty after a long show? — but the imagery was gorgeous, as was her cracked and broken voice. When the quiet song ended and the mobile deposited her on stage to take a final walk into her funhouse, the words “The End” projected on the screen above her. The raucousness was left behind, the house lights came up, a pack of fans attacked Adam Lambert, and the lingering image was of America’s most stubbornly non-conformist pop star, hanging naked above our heads, more or less daring us to feel something. Pink’s circus isn’t there to distract or misdirect, and the show would, quite honestly, be perfectly effective without it — the songs (and her voice) are good enough, and there are times when it’s more a hindrance than a help. But a circus is inside Pink’s brain right now, and because she can’t quite seem to keep anything to herself, she wants us to live in it, too. Unless you’ve got a clown phobia, it’s worth a look.
Highway to Hell (AC/DC cover)
Just Like a Pill
Don’t Let Me Get Me
I Touch Myself (Divinyls cover)
Please Don’t Leave Me
U + Ur Hand
Leave Me Alone (I’m Lonely)
I Don’t Believe You
Dear Mr. President
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You (Led Zeppelin cover)
Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen cover)
Crazy (Gnarls Barkley cover)
Get the Party Started
Glitter in the Air
Photo Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images